Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Miasmas, Shadows, and Exhausted Giants

In the books that I read, I am sensitive to the effects that descriptions of setting have upon me. If I realize that I don't really care for a book, a lackluster setting description is usually involved. Not to say that I'll put a book down if they skimp (or expound relentlessly) on location details, but it is normally one of the first signals that I notice when encountering a below-par novel. Conversely, one of the things that will make me notice that I'm enjoying reading an author is their engaging setting description, one that supersedes its purpose of providing context and becomes almost a character itself.

One such setting maestro is the Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. In his novel The Angel's Game he describes his main character David Martín's reaction to standing in a turret of a house he is interested in buying as it looks over the city of Barcelona: "I would have my sinister tower rising over the oldest, darkest streets of the city, surrounded by the miasmas and shadows of that necropolis which poets and murderers had once called the 'Rose of Fire.'" At another point Martín offers this: "I left the house after dawn. Dark clouds crept over the rooftops, stealing the color from the streets. As I crossed Ciudadela Park I saw the first drops hitting the trees and exploding on the path like bullets, raising eddies of dust." By themselves, they may seem mundane, but when encountered throughout an entire novel these sort of descriptions coalesce into a vision of a dark and torn city that threatens to destroy the main character, even as Martín uses its stories to fuel his crime novels.

Reading Ruiz Zafón's treatment of Barcelona in this manner brought to mind a passage by Guy de Maupassant in his work Bel-Ami: "Du Roy saw before him a reddish light in the sky like the glow of an immense forge, and heard a vast, confused, continuous rumor, made up of countless different sounds, the breath of Paris panting this summer like an exhausted giant."

Another author who used extraordinary attention to setting was Daphne Du Maurier. The first sentence of her novel Rebecca hints that setting will be a critical component of the book: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again." Later, when her character is describing coming to the Manderly estate for the first time, she states that "on either side of us was a wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were amongst the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddenness of their discovery. The woods had not prepared me for them. They startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic, unlike any rhododendron plant I seen before ..... These were monsters, rearing to the sky, massed like a battalion, too beautiful I thought, too powerful, they were not plants at all." One can almost feel the trepidation of Du Maurier's narrator dripping from the page. These types of descriptions are a major reason why many consider Rebecca to be one of the last great Gothic novels.

How about you? Do you have any descriptive masterpieces that have had a profound effect on you?

(Barcelona photo credit to ancama_99 (toni))


Laura A. said...

Willa Cather's novels, particularly My Antonia and O Pioneers, have some beautiful descriptive passages. She set her first, much less acclaimed novel, in the east and London, but it's her novels set in her native Nebraska and the surrounding states that really sing.

Linda K. said...

Carl Hiaason's novels tend to grab my interest right from the first page with descriptions such as this first line from "Native Tongue" "On July 16, in the aching torpid heat of the South Florida summer, Terry Whelper stood at the Avis counter at Miami International Airport and rented a bright red Chrysler LeBaron convertible." The rest of the novel is a crazy, darkly funny story about a Disney World knock off, and voles with indigo blue tongues (one of which winds up in the back seat of the above mentioned bright red rental car)followed by a slew of weird characters. Yes, just the right descriptive lines do make a novel more interesting.

Claire said...

As I began reading this blog post the first book I thought of was Shadow of the Wind--of course I'm in the process of reading it, so that stands to reason, but truly the descriptive details are incredible and make me keen to give it a shot in its original Spanish. What a great recommendation, Joel--can't wait to pass along the word. Thanks!

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